By Wayne Burnett
The Japanese term sensei (teacher) is a term of respect, also
used for doctors and others of high social rank. Perhaps it is not surprising that, with
the amount of work Japanese society expects of teachers, the emphasis on formal schooling,
and the high achievement levels shown on international tests, teachers are held in high
At Katoh Gakuen, where I teach math in an English immersion program, it is interesting
to see how this is played out in the dress code. Most male Japanese teachers arrive at
school wearing a tie. Most then immediately change into a sweat suit unless it is a
parent observation day.
I think this is done to maintain the professional image of the teacher on the way to
work, but then to become part of the class family while at school. While students come to
school in their uniforms, they too change, wearing physical education outfits most of the
day. Wearing sweats also makes it easier to play with children before school and during
recess. We are required to eat lunch with our students and go outside with them during
recess, primarily to play with them.
Presumably, along with status comes increased responsibility, real or perceived. I have
been fascinated by recent incidents of serious crimes committed by students, including
murder and manslaughter. In several cases, the principal of the school the student
attended held a news conference to apologize for the behaviour of the student, even if the
incident happened off school grounds. Rarely did parents seem to be the focus of
journalistic investigation. The principals were expected to re-double their efforts to
help teachers develop better relationships with their students.
HIGH STRESS LEVEL
School can be a high-stress environment for students. Many Canadians have read about
the examination hell that Japanese students go through. Many go to cram school after
school three or more times a week and often on Saturday afternoons. They may also indulge
in learning a musical instrument or taking ballet or karate lessons. They may even squeeze
in time for a hobby or just playing with friends.
Teachers share much of this stress. Parents and administrators see good, caring
teaching as the key to solving most student achievement problems. Thus, key stress periods
in the life of a student also affect the teachers.
Getting into a good junior high, senior high and university is crucial to upward
mobility in Japan. Therefore, teachers in the grades prior to an entrance examination
(Grades 6, 9 and 12) face an inordinate amount of pressure as they try to make sure all
their students are admitted to good institutions.
Ironically, it is unclear to me how much credit I can take when my students do well.
After all, what is the impact of the cram schools? There is already a measure of
self-selection in attending a private school. Do the cram schools give further advantages
to my students? Do they help because students get more teaching or hinder because they are
exhausted when they finally get around to doing my homework?
Life as an English immersion teacher in Japan does not completely mirror this reality.
For some students, the foreign teachers will always be second banana. Without strong
Japanese language skills, the foreign teachers are often out of the loop at school. While
the pay is better than that of many conversational English jobs, it hardly makes up for
the Saturdays, Sundays and summers in school.
There is a built-in accountability system for immersion teachers that adds
significantly to the stress level. Low achievement in the Japanese-language test, which
follows the English-language test in math and science, is often ascribed to weaknesses in
the immersion teachers delivery. Unfortunately, the teacher turnover rate at Katoh
reflects the challenges and difficulties of this position.
Despite the long hours and the pressures, teaching at Katoh is interesting and
rewarding. The twin opportunities of participating in the growth of this Canadian
invention of immersion and of getting an insider view into Japanese teaching and learning
make up for the two Saturdays a month I teach.
College member Wayne Burnett teaches Grade 6 math at a private school in Japan. He
taught for the North York Board of Education and was a member of the research staff of the
Royal Commission on Learning. He can be contacted at email@example.com